by Timothy Eagan
Hougton Mifflin, 2006
The verb esperar in Spanish, can mean either to hope or to wait depending on the context. It seems to me like a word that warns. Warns that life might play out the way it does in Timothy Eagin’s National Book Award winner – The Worst Hard Time/ The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl. Where the waiting outlasts hope.
This is not easy reading. A friend passed the book forward to me last fall, but in the midst of the plunging economy and the uncertainty we were all feeling, I wasn’t ready to plunge into it.
So why plunge in to it at all? My husband thinks it’s because I am drawn to the melancholy story. But that’s not quite right. I read books like this for the same reason that I read as many of the obituaries as I could bear after 9/11. To honor those that didn’t survive as well as those who did. But if I’m honest, I also read books like The Worst Hard Times, watch movies like Schindler’s List, and read those obituaries because somehow I think I can prepare myself.
Naïve I know. There’s no way we can ever prepare ourselves for tragedies. Still, I am glad I kept on reading Eagan’s well-researched work. For one thing so much of it parallels or informs the economic crises with which we are now dealing, reminding us that we are the beneficiaries of lessons learned in those years – from FDIC backing of our bank accounts, to the willingness of government to spend money to stimulate our economy. Both Ben Bernancke of the Federal Reserve and Christina Romer of the Obama Administration are experts on the Depression era. I’m thankful.
But the Dust Bowl years are also living proof that what we humans do to the earth will have repercussions. A government offer of free land in plots too small to graze cattle meant that “sod-busters” as the cowboys called them, would denude the ground of the free range perennial grasses that had held the earth for centuries during drought years. Substituting annual wheat crops that could never hope to survive those cycles meant inevitably Black Sunday would arrive. Tons of dust mixed with wind and a little rain – blotting out the sun with a wall of mud. Less than three decades after farmers began to tear up the soil more than 850 million tons of topsoil blew off the southern plains. Nearly 8 tons of dirt for every resident of the United States. And that in a single year – 1936.
The high plains never fully recovered from the Dust Bowl. The government had hoped to recover 75 million acres, by planting new drought resistant grasses, and introducing contour farming (fields plowed in furrows, little hillocks, so that the ground wouldn’t lift up in sheets during windstorms.) In the end the government recovered only about 11.3 million acres.
“After more than sixty-five years,” Eagan writes, “some of the land is still sterile and drifting. But in the heart of the old Dust Bowl now are three national grasslands run by the Forest Service.” (254)
There is warning in this book too, about what we are doing even now. After wheat proved impossible, farmers began drawing down the great Ogallala aquifer to grow cotton in these same lands. At the rate we are drawing it down it will dry up in 100 years. But some hydrologists say that in the Texas panhandle “the water will be gone by 2010.”(311)
This book tells stories, moving stories, of those that survived – as well as those that didn’t. Eagan has snatched these stories from oblivion, ferreted out from old diaries, old newspaper reports from oral histories and even a book written by one of the survivors. It’s not easy reading. But it is important to read for it may be the only way to learn some lessons – vicariously – before we bring the new devastation Al Gore and others are predicting: The point in human history where no matter how long we wait, our hopes will never stand a chance to be realized.